Friday, November 25, 2016

The English Rose with the Heart of a Lion

by Anna Belfrage

Philippa of England is the first of only two English women to have been queens of Sweden.  (The second one was Louise Mountbatten who married widower and future king Gustav VI Adolf in 1923) Mind you, had Sweden been all that was on offer, Philippa’s father would not have been all that interested – at the time, Sweden was a “Here be dragons” place, in that no one really knew what might live in those impenetrable northern woods. Not even the Swedes did.

Philippa was the daughter of the future Henry IV, the last child born in his marriage to Mary de Bohun. Philippa’s birth in 1394 led to Mary’s death, and her early childhood must have been rather confusing, what with her father being exiled by Richard II in 1398, only to return in 1399, depose the king, and claim the crown himself. In one fell swoop, Philippa became a princess.

Henry’s usurpation was not welcomed everywhere, testament to which was the plot which had as its goal to murder Henry and his four sons while they were celebrating Twelfth Night at Windsor. Somehow, Henry got wind of the plot (some say due to a kind-hearted whore, some say due to the guilty conscience of one of the would-be plotters) and managed to gather up his brood and flee to the safety of London. While there was never any intention to kill Philippa or her older sister, I imagine these events would have affected a five-year-old. They certainly had a major impact on Henry, who would never feel entirely secure on his throne, not even when Richard II met his timely death some weeks later.

Henry claiming the throne
A royal princess was a valuable asset when building alliances. For Henry, negotiating splendid marriages for his daughters was also a way of legitimising himself as king – something he had to do, as there were quite a few who considered his claim to the throne secondary to that of Edmund Mortimer, fifth Earl of March, whose paternal grandmother was the daughter of Edward IIIs second son, while Henry was “only” the son of Edward IIIs third son. Fortunately for Henry, Edmund was a child at the time of the usurpation – but boys have a tendency to grow into men, which is why little Edmund and his brother Roger were to grow up very supervised, especially after their Mortimer uncle proclaimed Edmund king and rebelled against Henry.

All these political events would have coloured Philippa’s childhood, just as her future as consort to an as yet unknown prince would have impacted how she was educated and raised. By 1405, Henry IV had made his choice: his youngest daughter was to marry Erik of Pomerania, nominal king of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.  True power resided with Erik’s impressive maternal great-aunt, Margareta of Denmark, the lady responsible for unifying the Scandinavian realms under one very strong hand: hers.

Bogislav becoming Erik
Erik’s real name was Bogislav.  At the age of six he was elevated to the position of Margareta’s heir, this as a consequence of the personal tragedies that afflicted the great Margareta, culminating with the death of her only and very beloved son, Olof, in 1387. As he reached his majority, he was formally recognised as king in his various kingdoms, but Margareta had no intention of relinquishing control, and Erik had no desire to force her to, being wise enough to realise it would benefit them both is she called the shots. It was Margareta who negotiated for Erik’s bride. It was Margareta’s support and recognition, not Erik’s, that Henry wanted. The lady in question, often referred to as “the king without pants”, was an admired person, and I imagine Henry felt he was placing his daughter in safe hands.

What Philippa thought of all this, we don’t know. She was married by proxy late in 1405 – all of eleven – and come next summer she was accompanied by her father to King’s Lynn where she boarded a ship and sailed due north-east. She would never see any members of her family again.
Upon her arrival in Helsingborg, Philippa was twelve or so. Her prospective bridegroom was twelve years older – a full-grown man who was very much in the thick of things. Margareta was a firm believer in learning by doing, and so she involved Erik in all aspects of ruling his vast kingdoms. Their main concern was the Hanseatic League and what to do to curtail its power. Philippa was initially too young to understand all this – I imagine she had other challenges to overcome, such as learning the language.

Erik, as per a contemporary
In October of 1406, Philippa wed Erik. A splendid ceremony celebrated in the Lund Cathedral, and recorded as being the first time ever the bride wore white – from head to toe. Once wed, Philippa was crowned queen of Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and upon all these solemn ceremonies followed a couple of weeks of partying, with the very tall, very handsome, groom treating his little bride with much respect and affection.

Of all the kingdoms presently under Margareta’s control, Sweden was the most restless, which was probably why Erik and Philippa made Kalmar in Sweden their home.  As per tradition, Philippa’s household was managed by a granddaughter to St Birgitta, which would explain why Philippa developed such an interest in the Brigittine order and its impressive combined nunnery and monastery in Vadstena.

As she grew older, Philippa became very devout and would expend considerable energies in supporting the Brigittines, with frequent visits to Vadstena.  But she was also a regnant queen, and Erik, who had grown up with a very strong woman, seems to have trusted his wife with several complex matters, such as more or less ruling Sweden single-handedly and acting as regent when he went off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the 1420s. By then, formidable Margareta had been dead for a decade or so, and Erik spent most of his time travelling from one corner of his realm to another. Sometimes Philippa accompanied him. Just as often, she preferred to remain in Sweden, a tangible reminder of the absent king.

Philippa won the hearts of her subjects by her demeanour and grace, and by all accounts her marriage was happy enough, albeit that she never experienced the joy of presenting her husband with a healthy heir. There are indications that she was brought to bed of a child, but the baby was either born stillborn or died very soon after. Philippa herself remained bedridden for some time afterwards, and already in 1416 the royal couple seem to have given up on future children, as Erik drew up an Order of Succession favouring his nephew.

Erik had his hands full with his various kingdoms – and even more so with the Hanseatic League, which did everything it could to foment dissatisfaction in Erik’s realms. The League felt threatened by a unified Scandinavia, and at some point the growing hostilities exploded into war. Philippa was dispatched to Sweden to convince the Swedes it was in their interest to side with their king.
“Hmm,” the Swedish nobility said, but Philippa was good at presenting her arguments, and so she rode off with the promise of Swedish support in the ongoing conflict.

Queen Philippa came into her own during the war with the Hanseatic League. In April 1428, the German merchants brought in a huge mercenary fleet to crush the Danish-Swedish feet, presently under anchor in Copenhagen. While Erik retired to a nearby island, Philippa refused to abandon Copenhagen and its inhabitants and was a loud and constant presence among the defenders, cheering them on with, I imagine, as much verbal skill as her famous brother Henry V. Except that she probably spoke Danish.

Philippa cheering on her forces in Copenhagen
(Illustration to H.C.Andersen's story about her)
The mercenary fleet approached, more than 260 ships determined to destroy Copenhagen once and for all. But the Danish city wasn’t giving up without a fight. Cannon roared, both from land based firing platforms but also from innovative floating batteries which could get that much closer to the ships flying the distinctive red and white Hanseatic pennant. When the Danish and Swedish ships joined the melee, the Hanseatic fleet chose to flee, while a very victorious queen pumped her arm in the air and hollered “Yay!” (Well, whatever the 15th century equivalent of that would be)

Angered and humiliated, the Hanseatic League reformed and returned in force in June of 1428. This time, they emerged victorious, sinking most of the Danish and Swedish ships in Copenhagen’s harbour. But Philippa escaped, as did Erik, and soon enough they had new ships ready to go, forcing the Hanseatic League back into their own harbours.

It must therefore have been with a certain buzz of success that Philippa in 1429 decided to undertake the long journey north from Copenhagen to Vadstena, there to meet various of the Swedish nobles. While in the best of health when she rode off, by the time she reached Vadstena she was ill. She died on the eve of Twelfth Mass and was buried under the floor of the chapel she herself had added to the Brigittine Abbey church.

Philippa, stainglass window in Vadstena
(Photo: Mariusz Pazdziora)
Her husband was, by all accounts, quite distraught. Her Swedish subjects even more so. With Philippa’s death, what little loyalty they had ever felt towards Erik dissipated like mist in the sun. In 1434, Erik was deposed as king of Sweden, and over the coming years he would also lose the Norwegian and Danish crown, retiring to Gotland and the far more lucrative pursuit of piracy.

Philippa was not quite 36 years old when she died. A short life, we would think, and I suppose Philippa would have preferred not to die as she did. But for all its brevity, Philippa’s life was full of adventure, all the way from the trip she undertook in 1406 to meet her husband, to her inspired leadership during the Bombardment of Copenhagen.  She is remembered in Sweden as a good and capable queen, a Lancaster rose who thrived in the colder climates of the north, who ruled wisely and well, and had the heart of an English lion.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons

Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him.

More about Anna on her website or on her blog!


  1. Thank you for introducing me to two interesting women.

  2. Fascinating to read about Philippa and Erik, and that Erik retired to Gotland and a life of piracy. Strangely just writing a re-imagining with Victual Brotherhood who operated out of Visby in Gotland, causing Margareta a lot of problems.

  3. We English seem to have had the knack of producing great women leaders and not only for our own good; although I suppose strictly speaking Phillipa of England was a Plantagenat, with more French blood than English. But I'm happy to claim her as one of us. :)


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